You may have already heard whispers surrounding The Witch. The debut feature from director Robert Eggers has played to great acclaim on the festival circuit and spawned a cult figure in a goat named Black Philip. Even US film distributors have taken note by bringing its release date forward. But while it may have captivated the press, will audiences fall prey under its dark magic?
Set in 17th Century New England a few decades before the infamous Salem trials, The Witch is an effective piece of subdued cinema with roots firmly planted in folklore. Farmer William (Ralph Ineson) has been exiled from his plantation and now lives with his family on the edge of a vast and foreboding forest. The New England backdrop is already disquieting before the couple’s infant child disappears - literally vanishing under the eyes of oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) during a game of peekaboo. Distraught mother (Kate Dickie) immediately points the finger at her oldest child - heaping accusations of negligence upon her - and becomes tormented by a paranoid guilt that the unbaptized child is now in ‘the devil’s hands’.
As the farm’s crops begin to die and unexplained illnesses take their hold, accusations of witchcraft are pointed at Thomasin, who becomes the victim not only of her mother’s abuse but of the onslaught of rapidly occurring, yet unexplained, phenomena.
The Witch’s grip of understated dread never wavers over its brief ninety minutes and the smallest detail will leave you transfixed. The nuances, from Thomasin’s impending womanhood and the allegories surrounding blood, to the nods to classic horror (the twins put the pair in The Shining to shame) are wonderful. This is horror at its most subtle and detailed, toying with our eyes as much as our imagination, as cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s beautifully muted palette accentuates the isolation of the exiled family and their repressed lifestyle.
All of these elements feed into what some may assume and perhaps disregard as a very simple narrative. Yet from the intensely suspenseful quietness - filled with tension to the point when you could hear a pin drop – you’ll find yourself questioning whether everything really is as straightforward as it appears, or if we are seeing a family’s mass hysteria influenced by both their religion and overactive imaginations.
The most effective horror is that which cannot be seen and cannot be controlled. It’s what lurks in the woods, in the forest and only reveals itself when it’s too late. The Witch is an exemplary piece of filmmaking where fear lies in the shadows - and, more specifically, where the devil is in the details.